NASA Faces Billions in Deferred Maintenance & Repairs

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Although NASA has made some progress in repairing and rebuilding its aging infrastructure, the space agency faces a deferred maintenance backlog of $2.65 billion, according to a new report by the Office of Inspector General (IG).

NASA is one of the biggest managers of property in the federal government, with 5,000 buildings and structures in 14 states. More than 83 percent of the structures are beyond their original design life, the review found.

“This has resulted in unscheduled maintenance rather than scheduled maintenance costing up to three times more to repair or replace equipment after it has failed,” the report stated. “The Agency is also responsible for 176 abandoned properties worth $356 million that present a safety and maintenance liability as many have structural, roofing, or interior deficiencies.”

The problems were outlined in a report released last week that identified the NASA’s top seven management and performance challenges. [Full Report]

This is not the first time the IG has evaluated NASA’s problems with maintaining its infrastructure. The watchdog said it has found that NASA is slow and inconsistent in how it implements corrective actions.

“In March 2017, we reported that after more than 4 years the Agency had yet to make key decisions about its capabilities or decide whether to consolidate or dispose of unused and unneeded facilities and other assets,” the document stated.

“Moreover, NASA’s assessments of its capabilities did not consistently include information needed to make informed decisions, including mission needs or facility usage data, analyses to determine gaps or overlaps, recommendations to achieve cost savings, or firm time frames for completing actions,” the report said.

Key IG Recommendations Implemented by NASA
Complete the ongoing comprehensive technical capabilities assessment and ensure the process is established into policy.

The review noted NASA has made progress in consolidating its operations into a smaller number of more modern buildings and upgrading facilities.

“For example, in April 2019, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center completed Building 4221, part of the refurbishment of the ‘4200 Complex’ that included the demolition and replacement of old buildings with sustainable facilities,” the document stated.

“Additionally, as we reported in October 2018, the Agency is utilizing $18 million in historic property lease proceeds at Ames to maintain facilities including the Unitary Planned Wind Tunnel, Arc Jet Complex, and Vertical Motion Simulator,” the report added.

NASA has also made major upgrades at Kennedy, Stennis and Ames centers in support of its Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

However, billions of dollars are still required to improve NASA’s facilities. NASA Administrator said the space agency is working on the problem.

“NASA agrees with the characterization of this challenge and acknowledges that the underlying issues relate largely to the age and condition of our inventory,” he wrote in a response to the report.

To address the challenges with obsolete facilities and structures, we have implemented a multi-pronged approach to either remove facilities from our inventory altogether or replace them through our renewal or recapitalization program. Over the past several years, NASA has gradually increased its funding for demolition of facilities and has had great success with a dedicated demolition program manager. NASA continues to invest in its recapitalization program to replace and consolidate in fewer, more modern, and energy efficient facilities.

In addition to routine maintenance and repairs on aging structures, NASA faces challenges caused by damage to its facilities by wildfires, hurricanes and “climate variability,” i.e., climate change.

“Up to two-thirds of NASA’s infrastructure and assets valued at more than $32 billion stand within 5 meters (16 feet) of sea level. These include laboratories, launch pads, airfields, testing facilities, data centers, and other infrastructure that could face significant threats without mitigation measures,” the document stated.

“While NASA received $59 million in supplemental funding in FY 2018 to repair facilities damaged at Johnson Space Center by Hurricane Harvey and $22.3 million to repair facilities damaged at Kennedy Space Center by Hurricane Irma, the Agency may face significant unplanned expenses for facility repairs following storms and other climate events,” the report added.

NASA also faces challenges in remediating polluted soil and ground water at current and abandoned facilities. The IG report questioned whether the space agency should spend $500 million and 25 years cleaning up the old Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in California.

Key IG Recommendations Not Implemented by NASA
Pursue all available options administrative, legal, or political to ensure NASA’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory soil cleanup is performed in an environmentally and financially responsible manner based on the intended future use of the property.

Ensure NASA policies and procedures for using the proceeds from facilities leased under National Historic Preservation Act authority appropriately aligns with Agency goals to minimize excess facilities.

Evaluate Capability Leadership Model assessments and teams to better ensure independence.

Perform a comprehensive review of Program funded construction projects to ensure adequate analysis, including all life cycle costs, is completed prior to project initiation.

Soil cleanup to allow recreational use of the site would cost $124 million, allowing the space agency to save $337 million that could be used to remediate pollution at other NASA sites, the report stated.

In his response, Bridenstine said the space agency is working with California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control and other shareholders to clean up SSFL in environmentally responsible manner.

The space agency is working on an evaluation of soil cleanup at the site will be available for public review this month.

Ongoing and Anticipated Future Audit Work

NASA’s Management of the Mobile Launcher
This audit is examining the status of Mobile Launcher 1 as well as NASA’s development plans for Mobile Launcher 2 and the extent to which the EGS Program is meeting cost, schedule, and performance goals related to the Mobile Launchers.

NASA’s Management of Hazardous Materials
This audit evaluates NASA’s processes and procedures regarding the acquisition, handling, storage, and disposal of hazardous materials.